Let there be light: How Island greenhouses are growing produce year-round
Lights on up to 16 hours a day to keep plants growing year-round
Krista Schurman is used to the look of disbelief that she gets at the Charlottetown and Summerside Farmer's Markets when she stand before bins full of brightly-coloured tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers.
"If they're not used to us, they ask us where they came from. That's the first question," said Schurman.
"They automatically assume we're buying product and re-selling it and so it's usually quite a surprise, a little bit of disbelief when I say, no, I grow it."
"They look at me, are you sure?"
Schurman is sure.
Since 2014, she and her husband Marc have been growing produce year-round at the Schurman Family Farm in Kensington, P.E.I. Besides CSA boxes and the local farmer's markets, they also sell their produce at retail outlets throughout the Maritimes, under the brand Atlantic Grown Organics.
It was to meet the winter demand of the retail outlets that forced the Schurmans to find a way to keep their greenhouse going 12 months of the year.
No more dark days
Installing lights in their greenhouse was a substantial investment, but has allowed the Schurmans to extend their growing season.
"Typically greenhouses will end their production by December because it will be dark months," explained Schurman.
"Then you would start growing your baby plants and they would grow all through the winter and then start your production in March, roughly."
Everything in the greenhouse is computerized. The Schurmans run the lights for 16 hours a day and they're automatically turned off if there is enough sun.
"We love cold sunny days," said Schurman. "When it's cold, it's usually bright and sunny."
"To us that's the best winter day we can get."
"Heating we can control, it may take more heat, more of an expense in the winter time to heat it, but a grey day, it's just harder for the plants to produce anything."
"It's a struggle that way."
Extending the season
Other P.E.I. farmers growing field crops have started to extend their seasons using so-called hoop houses.
Verena Varga and Amy Smith have been farming in the winter for six years at Heart Beet Organics in Darlington, P.E.I.
These days, they are harvesting, spinach, lettuce, a few varieties of kale, salad turnips, radishes, mustard and other Asian greens such as bok choy, tatsoi and mizuna.
"We grow crops that can handle the temperatures such as spinach and lettuce and the greens are so sweet this time of year, because the cold temperatures bring out the sugars, which is kind of like the plants' antifreeze," said Varga.
"That limp spinach from California in the grocery store doesn't even taste like the same vegetable compared to ours," she added.
Without lights, they are limited by the hours of sunshine that reach their greenhouse.
"In two weeks, February 7th to be exact, we will cross the ten hours of daylight mark, which is what the plants wait for to start growing again," said Varga.
Heart Beat Organics will not be adding lights, like the ones at the Schurman family farm, says Varga, because of the expense.
"That is a completely different farm model from ours, a great innovative model, but not for us," she said.
Since adding the lights two years ago, the Schurmans have also tweaked the way they grow their produce.
They use a system of inter-planting crops, to try to avoid any lull in production.
"We start planting the new crop amongst the old crop so that we have no time with no production."
They now grow tomatoes year-round, and have expanded to cucumbers and red and yellow bell peppers.
The peppers are a challenge, because they take 20 weeks to grow compared to 8 weeks for cucumbers.
They've also added lettuces, kale and spinach in smaller quantities, just for local farmer's markets, not retail sales.
'Like a perfect June day'
Running the greenhouse year-round is expensive.
"There are times of the year when you don't make as much money as other times of the year," she said.
"We're able to take a less margin just because it's a commitment to our customers."
There are, however, bonuses to have a heated, lit greenhouse in the middle of a chilly P.E.I. winter.
"Sometimes we don't take time to appreciate it," said Schurman.
"We were grafting tomato plants which takes two days sitting in the greenhouse."
"It was sunny and it was warm and it felt like a perfect June day."
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